Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Missionary Saints of the High Middle Ages: Martyrdom, Popular Veneration, and Canonization

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Missionary Saints of the High Middle Ages: Martyrdom, Popular Veneration, and Canonization

Article excerpt

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, as missionaries were again leaving Europe in the hope of creating a Christian world, the idea of martyrdom cast a powerful spell. The church calendar still gave primary place to holy martyrs, who had accepted gruesome torture and death rather than renounce their faith in Christ and His promise of eternal happiness. Liturgical services commemorated their glorious sacrifices, and their cults made them objects of particular devotion. Many of the mendicant missionaries who ventured into pagan and Islamic realms in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries also accepted death rather than renounce Christianity, and their passiones, accounts written to commemorate their sufferings, -were cast in terms reminiscent of the passions of early Christian martyrs. Nevertheless, the institutional church was slow to legitimize their cultus and reluctant to honor them as saints, despite efforts by their confreres in Europe to win recognition and canonization for these martyrs. Over time, however, often many centuries later, some of these missionaries were belatedly inscribed among the blessed by the Roman Church. Addressing both the circumstances of early Franciscan missionary martyrdoms and Rome's indifference to requests for canonization of the martyrs, this paper elaborates cases of the few mission martyrs who did eventually win recognition as saints of the Roman Church.

Papal indifference toward canonization of mendicant friars killed for professing their faith in the mission field is problematic. Church doctrine maintained that the sins of any who laid down their lives for the faith were deemed to be washed away in their blood, and their entry into Paradise guaranteed.' Only a cursory inquiry into the facts of such cases ought to have been necessary to establish sainthood. This fact notwithstanding, the canonization process, newly created at the dawn of the thirteenth century, was used to keep martyrs killed in the mission fields from being acknowledged as saints.2 The Roman Church not only insisted on close scrutiny before endorsing the cults of those killed while trying to convert infidels; it also refused to open proceedings that might lead to canonization. Only in the closing years of the fifteenth century did the Church accept thirteenth-century mission martyrs as candidates for sainthood, and the few fourteenth-century martyrs who have been beatified won this recognition centuries later.

Although the facts in each case are unique, it will be seen that martyrs who did become beati or sancti seem to have enjoyed both the support of their Orders and an active cult within Europe. Such popular devotion did not guarantee official church sanction, however. Indeed, popular cults seem often to have been stumbling blocks in the path to beatification of martyrs because the Roman Church, in the face of schism and heresy within the western church, became wary of lay enthusiasm for new martyrs' cults. As Andre Vauchez has demonstrated, there was a popular predisposition to venerate martyrs, and many clerics and laymen who suffered an undeserved death were acclaimed as such. His Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages cites some twenty-six men, women, and children for whom cults arose in the high Middle Ages. The sole trait they had in common was an unmerited, violent end.' Vauchez sees this phenomenon not only as reflecting popular fear of violent death and thirst for justice, but also as attesting to the survival of a basic ideal of primitive Christianity: that the only true saints were martyrs. Whether or not Vauchez's interpretation of motive is accepted, the fact is that cults venerating perceived victims did arise spontaneously within European society. These new cults, local manifestations of heightened religious ardor, fed ecclesiastical fear of heretical sects, a concern intensified because condemned heretics and schismatics had sometimes received popular acclaim as martyrs.4 It was partly to control popular enthusiasm and to regulate new cults that the papacy took the making of saints into its own hands by establishing rules for canonization. …

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